Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Bill, 1999: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As I said previously, common sense must apply, irrespective of what regulation may be in place, and all sides of the House agree with that. That said, it does not always apply on board craft. If we say it often enough perhaps people will get the message. We will probably have to concentrate on young people in school. With the former Minister, Deputy Woods, having now been reassigned the Education and Science portfolio, he would have a feel for that approach.

While the 1894 legislation governing the investigation of marine casualties has served us well, it is clearly in need of modernisation to provide for a more open approach required by changes in public values and the trend towards more open government in conducting such investigations. We need to bring marine casualty investigation in Ireland into line with the requirements of a modern society with a top class system which meets people's needs and expectations, especially those bereaved by marine tragedies. The Department and I have endeavoured to ensure investigations into marine accidents are conducted in this open manner in recent years. Having successfully introduced the system of publishing casualty reports, we now want to make public a legal requirement with specific time limits so that reports are produced and published swiftly.

This came about with the sinking of the Orchidee and the accident in which Jimmy Power and Bobby Doran lost their lives some seven years ago. I share the view that seven years is too long to have to wait for a report. Deputy Finucane asked if the target of nine months was too ambitious. The recommendation was that we should try to have it in three. In this instance, it would have been impossible to produce a report in nine months because it depended on litigation in France and it was difficult to have the case included on the books of the French courts. I was heavily involved in that having known both families well. In that context, I welcome the legislation as it is good law.

Widespread publication of the findings and recommendations of accident investigators will bring to the attention of vessel owners and seafarers the need for giving safety top priority. We cannot say that often enough. Furthermore, establishing as quickly as possible the facts behind a tragedy can often be a comfort in difficult times for bereaved. We would all have seen this from time to time. While I am anxious that such openness be maintained, I am aware that it should not impede the primary objective of an investigation which is to establish as quickly as possible the causes of the casualty and to make recommendations on measures to be taken to avoid a recurrence. If that could happen, we would all be happy.

I am confident that the new system of investigation identified by the marine casualties policy review group to replace the system established in 1894 and which is provided for in the Bill will meet the required needs and lead to a major improvement not only in the law governing investigations but also in the procedures which will be established for the conduct of such investigations. The establishment of an independent marine casualty investigation board, employing the highest international standards, is a key and innovative step designed to lead to the more open and transparent approach which is desired. A strong independent board with the necessary powers to fully investigate the causes of marine tragedies will help to ensure that lessons to be learned can be used to help avoid similar accidents in future.

The provision in the Bill for an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, will accommodate new framework legislation to redress the deficiencies identified in existing law and provide a uniform and effective set of conditions to regulate the use of recreational and pleasure craft in Ireland. It will allow local authorities to enact by-laws to control the use of jet skis and fast power craft as an initial step, something clearly recommended to me by the action group on small powered recreational craft in its interim report which I received in November last.

All local authorities which have contacted me, especially the local authorities in Wexford, which have a substantial coastline and around which there have been too many tragedies and some dif ficulties with jet skis, felt they did not have the power to make by-laws and consequently to move on the matter. This new framework will allow them do that and, as Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, I encourage it. We can make regulations introducing national provisions governing the safe use of such craft.

Having this framework in place quickly is critical on two fronts. One, it enables me to provide the sound legislative basis for these authorities to make by-laws this year covering the use of fast craft in local areas. Two, it enables me to act immediately on further recommendations which may come from the action group in its final report to me at the end of February next.

While noting that we will return to this Bill in more detail on Committee Stage, I wish to comment on some of the points raised by Deputies. Regarding the marine casualty aspect of the Bill, the proposed timeframe of nine months between a casualty occurring and the publication of a report may be perceived as an ambitious target as I indicated earlier. I believe that, in 99% of cases, it is not alone desirable but achievable. It is because of the unacceptable delays in publication under the current system that I want to ensure these delays are eliminated in future. I am also aware of the need to ensure that lessons learned from an investigation are disseminated to the maritime community as soon as possible to help ensure that similar accidents do not recur. I am sure everyone in the House can spread that message and it is important we do so. The policy review group recommended a period of three months but this was unrealistic, hence my decision to propose a timeframe of nine months.

On another time related issue Deputy Bell referred to the common law presumption that when a person has been missing for seven years or more that person is presumed to be dead. This is an issue for my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in the context of laws governing the operations of the Coroner's Court. The Deputy can be assured we keep in close contact with the Minister on that issue because it arises every so often.

Regarding the proposed legislation on pleasure craft, including fast power craft and jet skis, I agree with the Deputies that implementing regulations should be introduced as soon as possible. It is my intention to do this through the powers being made available in the Bill once I have considered the findings and recommendations of the action group.

Deputy Bell raised two issues relating to the role of local authorities in the context of the proposed legislation for pleasure craft, including fast powered craft and jet skis. I have asked the action group to specifically consider in its final report the issues of enforcement and resources as well as recommending a series of guidelines to be used by local authorities when introducing by-laws for the purposes of the Bill.

The Deputies raised some other issues not directly related to the Bill but to which I would like to reply briefly and I thank them for taking the opportunity of raising them with me. On legislation dealing with adventure and activity centres, a new division has been established in the Department to deal with the marine leisure sector. One of its priority tasks is to draw up the legislation to which Deputy Finucane referred. It is included in the Government's legislative programme for this semester. Everything will be done to meet this schedule. I would welcome an input from the Deputy who has a particular interest in the matter.

On fishing vessel safety, a number of initiatives have been taken since the publication of the report of the safety review group. The Department is liaising closely with the industry on future regulations to improve safety standards. The industry has been circulated recently with a set of draft regulations on safety requirements to allow for a fully inclusive consultative process. As regards the details of grants awarded I will revert to the Deputy directly at a later date when a full set of data is to hand. In the first instance responsibility for safety rests with the person or persons concerned. They must be encouraged to use their common sense. The issue of emergency tugs is being actively examined on foot of a report recently submitted to me. It has high priority.

On staffing levels at the marine survey office, consultants have recently been appointed to conduct a comprehensive review of the Department's marine regulatory services. This will include an examination of existing resources of all divisions involved in the delivery of these services.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. All the points raised have been noted and will be given every consideration. I am naturally concerned to ensure every feasible measure is introduced to improve safety standards. I am confident that the provisions contained in the Bill will form an integral part of my strategy to enhance safety standards throughout the seafaring community as we enter the new millennium.

Question put and agreed to.